Dismissed by some academics as a trade war, and by Australians of the John Pilger persuasion as a conflict irrelevant to Australia’s national interest, the Great War was nevertheless embraced by the majority of Australians of Faith – Catholic, Protestant and Jewish – as so personally involving them that some 416,000 of them out of a population of slightly fewer than five millions volunteered – there were no conscripts – to fight for God, King and Country. It was certainly an ‘unnecessary war’ – the phrase used by Churchill to describe the Second World War – but once started it had to be won. We now know what defeat for the British Empire would have meant – irrespective of any involvement by Australia – because we know what a German peace treaty looked like: the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk cost Russia one third of its population, half of its heavy industry and 80% of its coal and energy resources. The first Treaty term for Britain at the hands of a victorious Germany would have been the confiscation of the Royal Navy, which had kept the peace in international waters for over a hundred years (after all, the British confiscated the German High Seas Fleet in 1918 – and that would not only have affected Australian maritime trade, would not only have seen an extension of Germany’s territorial acquisitions in New Guinea but would also have left the Pacific wide open for Japanese expansion and the potential envelopment of Australia). The First World War had to be won every bit as much as Part II of what was essentially the same conflict in 1939-1945.
None of that was probably foreseen by the eager young men who rushed to the recruiting depots in 1914 and 1915. What they could see, however, in those first few tragic weeks of August, was the methodical murder of 4,723 Belgian civilians (including over 600 in Dinant market place alone – lined up, executed) as the Armies of Von Kluck, Von Bulow and Von Hausen trampled neutral Belgium in fulfilment of the Great German Staff’s Schlieffen Plan. Australians of that day had no more taste for bullying than they have today.
But it is not my intention tonight to detail that wearisome progress through Gallipoli and the Western Front from 1915 onwards. I would like to focus first on 2017, the worst and darkest year for the inhabitants of the Australian Continent. In that year alone some 22,000 Australians were killed in battle and 50,000 were wounded: Bullecourt I, Bullecourt II, Messines, Passchendaele – these were the killing fields across France and Flanders. Twenty-two thousand grieving families. For the past 17 years or so, as you well know, the Australian Armed Forces have been engaged in the bloody conflicts of the Middle East and, out of a population now numbering more than 25 millions, 41 Australian soldiers have been killed in action – 41 too many, but 22,000 in a single year! And what was gained from that sacrifice? Retirement from Bullecourt, necessitating a second go; partial success at Messines; and a 7 km advance at Passchendaele. It was the darkest period of Australia’s history.
Ah! But in October of that dreadful year, far from the soggy battlefields of Europe, this darkness was split by a single lightning flash, far out in the Negev Desert where an advance of 7km within a single hour etched the name of Beersheba in the annals of Australian History. Except that few Australians have ever heard of it and modern school curricula have ignored it for decades. It was of course the charge of Harry Chauvel’s Light Horse at Beersheba.
It had been a typical Light Horse approach march, over several nights through waterless terrain, 40 minutes of the hour in the saddle, 10 minutes leading, 10 resting, and dawn had found them seven km to the south-east of Beersheba. Chauvel knows that he must take Beersheba on this day, the 31st October 1917, otherwise General Allenby’s Third Battle of Gaza will fail like General Murray’s first two in March and April. Chauvel must also find water for his parched horses at the town wells before the German engineers can blow them up, or fill them in, as the Philistines did when Abraham died – three of those wells, you may remember, were re-discovered by Isaac, and when a fourth was dug out again an agreement was struck with Abimelech, King of the Philistines, Isaac naming it ‘Shebah: therefore the name of the city is Beersheba unto this day’ (Genesis, 26). The timing of Chauvel’s attack will depend on the neutralisation of a strong point, Tel El Saba, on his right flank, which proves a tougher nut to crack than envisaged but which finally succumbs to the gallantry of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and elements of the 1stLight Horse Brigade, notably the 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment from Tasmania and South Australia. It is now 4.30 pm, the sun sinking into the heat haze, the mosque in Beersheba a white smudge in the gathering gloom. Behind him, Chauvel’s British Cavalry, equipped with swords, are keen to advance. The Australians only have their 18-inch bayonets. But the Australians are closer and time presses. Imperturbable as always, Chauvel turns to Major General Hodgson, commanding the Australian Mounted Division, and says in that quiet voice of his, ‘Put Grant straight at it’. Brigadier-General Grant, from Stawell, Victoria, lines up 800 horsemen, the 4th Regiment from Victoria on the right, the 12th from New South Wales on the left: ‘Walk-March!’ – well that doesn’t last long, they’re into the trot, then the canter and, as shrapnel bursts overhead, into a full and frenzied gallop, the horsemen yelling and brandishing their bayonets, the horses catching the excitement, sensing the water in the distant wells…. The Turks blink. These horsemen are not dismounting 800 yards away, rifle shot range, to advance as usual on foot, they’re galloping on, irresistibly, too fast for the Turks to lower their gun sites, leaping over the trenches, then dismounting to round up 800 Turks at bayonet point, while others race into town to stop the engineers blowing up the wells: the horsemen are exhausted, 31 killed, but they’re on the road to Jerusalem. And the horses get their water.
It’s been a long ride, for horse and man, all the way from the Suez Canal, across the Sinai Desert after the big fight at Romani in August 1916 and the classic encirclement battles of Magdhaba, Rafa, First Gaza – even longer for those who, dismounted, were called in to reinforce the decimated ranks on Gallipoli, where Chauvel commanded the crucial Left Section at ANZAC – Pope’s Hill, Quinn’s Post, Courtney’s, Steele’s, the C.O. of the 15th Battalion asserting that of all the generals he knew the coolest and calmest under fire was Harry Chauvel. But they’re back in the saddle again, 12 – later 15 – proud Regiments, each of three squadrons, each squadron of four Troops, the Troops consisting of four-man Sections, one man to hold the horses, three to fight with rifle and bayonet – mounted infantry, highly mobile, searching out the land like Johsua en route to Jericho, like the Long Range Desert Group and the SAS in the next war. ‘The Jews,’ wrote the Official Historian, ‘grew fond of these big men on their big horses, discovering that beneath their terrible aspect they were gentle and chivalrous young men’, often dismounting to place refugees, even PoWs, in their own saddles.
As illustrative of this ‘terrible aspect’ we have the following Beersheba vignettes: Trooper O’Leary of the 4th galloping 80 yards ahead of his squadron, leaping the Turkish Trench and charging right on into the town, where he is found an hour-and-a-half afterwards seated on a German field gun, which he had galloped down, with six Turkish gunners and drivers taking it in turn to hold his horse; then there is Staff Sergeant Cox who, on noticing a machine-gun being hurriedly dismounted from a mule, dashes at the party and bluffs them into surrendering along with thirty others; or Trooper Bolton, who single-handedly chased a field gun being drawn by six horses under the command of a German officer – Bolton has lost his rifle in the charge but he picks up a revolver and, the German refusing to halt, Bolton shoots at point-blank range only to produce a misfire, so with the butt-end of the revolver he knocks the German out of the saddle and forces the Turks to return with the gun; or Trooper Scott, his thigh broken in the charge, refusing to fall out and insisting that if he couldn’t fight he could lead some horses back to safety, five of which he delivers, fainting as he is lifted from the saddle. As a captured German officer was to put it, ‘We did not believe that the charge would be pushed home. I have heard a great deal of the fighting quality of Australian soldiers. They are not soldiers at all; they are madmen.’
And this so-called ‘chivalrous’ aspect? Certainly Theodore Herzl’s settler Jews were relieved by Allenby’s advance into Palestine, but their joy was if anything exceeded by that of the Christians of Eastern Palestine, who found themselves liberated when the 3rd Light Horse Regiment under Colonel Bell (from Tasmania and South Australia, remember) took the town of Es Salt. Unfortunately, however, the further probe, a raid on Amman to the east, failed and the Light Horsemen found themselves withdrawing by goat-track in rugged terrain, dispirited Christians, even Muslims, holding their stirrups or, as needed, being lifted into their saddles. ‘Never mind Allah!’ exclaimed one irritable light horseman to an old man who was beseeching a ride for his wife; ‘she’s fallen off twice, and I’m tired of her. Why didn’t you teach her how to ride? However, up she goes for the last time!’
Jerusalem. ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not’ (Luke 13.34). It was the 9th December 1917, 39 days after the charge at Beersheba which facilitated it, that Allenby’s entry to Jerusalem took place, the C-in-C not swaggeringly mounted as when, in 1908, the German Kaiser had entered through a gateway especially driven for him through the great stone walls, but on foot via the Jaffa Gate, humbly, like that other arrival nineteen hundred years before, meek and sitting on a colt, the foal of an ass. ‘It is doubtful,’ writes the Official Historian, ‘if a single man of European origin entered Jerusalem for the first time untouched by the influence of the Saviour. Christ met each man on the threshold of the city; each man as he entered was purified and exalted. The influence, perhaps, was not lasting. War is not a Christian mission. But for a brief spell at least the soldier’s mind was purged of grossness, and he knew again the pure and trusting faith of his early childhood.’
Finally comes the climactic Battle of Megiddo. Two courses are open to the C-in-C. First, to break through the enemy lines in the east, clear Gilead and then head for Deraa. Secondly, to smash through on the coast, ride hard up the Plain of Sharon, cross the Mt Carmel-Samaria saddle, then swing east along the Esdraelon Plain between Galilee and Samaria to Beisan on the Jordan River, which would carry mounted men across the lines of communication of two Turkish armies, the 7th and 8th, whilst holding down the 4th east of the Jordan. Allenby chooses the second course. It is the reverse of the Beersheba attack, with a feint inland and an assault on the coast. For this reason he deploys Chauvel’s mounted troops, now augmented with British and Indian formations, in the Jordan Valley – for the Turks have learned to expect that wherever the Light Horsemen are, that will be the Schwerpunkt, the main point of the attack. For the Light Horsemen this does mean sweltering in the malarial Jordan Valley throughout the long, hot summer of 1918, while the Turks build up their forces inland without significantly reinforcing their lines on the coast. But now the genius of the plan is revealed, thanks to the meticulous planning and organisation of Chauvel and his staff, as he night marches three whole divisions right across the Turkish front to hide them in the olive groves and orange orchards on the coast, leaving only the ANZAC Mounted Division facing the Turks in the Valley, along with 15,000 dummy horses made of canvas and wood to fool the German airmen, while Jewish and West Indian troops march and counter-march to raise the Valley’s dust and Lawrence’s Arab agents ostentatiously place orders for huge supplies of horse feed east of the Jordan.
D-Day is the 19th of September 1918. Harry lets it be known that the Australians will hold a race meeting on this day – a race meeting in the Valley, how Australian! At 0430 Allenby’s guns open up on the coast, the British infantry punch holes in the unreinforced Turkish lines, and Chauvel’s cavalry are through the gaps, riding hard up the Plain of Sharon, then swinging north-east over the Mount Carmel-Samaria saddle to debouch at Megiddo into the Jezreel Valley, the Armageddon of the Bible, the Armageddon of 1918, surprising the German Commander-in-Chief at his Nazareth HQ, Liman von Sanders, who escapes in his staff car – and his pyjamas. Chauvel’s horsemen are now across the communication lines of two Turkish armies, the 7th and 8th, cutting them off from their rear echelons, while east of the Jordan the 4th Army, harried by Lawrence of Arabia, joins the retreat northwards. ‘What about Damascus?’ asks Allenby. ‘Rather’, says Chauvel, man of few words.
Damascus is to be another encirclement deal, but when Brigadier-General Wilson, commanding 3rd Light Horse Brigade, views the rugged country surrounding the city’s beautiful green enclave, he gambles on a short cut, straight through the heart of the city, which at 0630 next morning finds a Major Olden, commanding a squadron of the 10th Light Horse from Western Australia, on the steps of the Town Hall bluffing the City Governor into believing that the city is already surrounded: ‘I welcome the British Army’, says the Emir, fatalistically, but the Horsemen have no time for ceremony (they will leave that to the splendid entry of Lawrence’s Arabs) and are out the northern gate on the Homs Road heading for Aleppo. Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, names tragically familiar today, but these ANZACs leave cities intact, hospitals functioning, refugees protected, prisoners-of-war cared for. Regarding this land of the medieval crusaders, the Official Historian writes, ‘no soldiers rode nearer to the Christian precept to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God than these seemingly careless young light horsemen.’ The Turks give up, eleven days before the Armistice on the Western Front. Never in the First World War has there been a more far-ranging and complete victory than this of Allenby’s in the Middle East, ending 400 years of Ottoman rule, to the immediate benefit of Jews, Armenians and Arabs, amongst others, and paving the way for the creation thirty years later of the modern State of Israel, still the only democracy in the Middle East. And throughout, as Allenby himself acknowledges, it has been Chauvel’s Light Horse which has been the main striking force, the only force indeed to have fought from start to finish, Suez to Aleppo.
Sir Harry Chauvel, GCMG, KCB, was the first Australian to be promoted to Lieutenant-General, the first to be given command of a complete Corps, 34,000 horsemen, a cavalry force surpassing Napoleon’s and never seen since, but unique too because as well as Australians and New Zealanders Chauvel commanded British troops, Indians, French, Africans, Sikhs, Hong Kong Chinese, West Indians, Jews and Egyptians – the only other Australian to command such a multi-national force being our former Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, commanding the International Force East Timor. But what sort of fellow was Harry Chauvel? Quiet, reserved, almost shy, yet a strong disciplinarian from his Boer War days, his HQ always forward with his men. A man of strong Christian faith, as I shall make clear later, but perhaps I should begin with his brilliant horsemanship, dating from his earliest years on the family farm in northern NSW, then riding to boarding school in Queensland and leading the Queensland Mounted Rifles in South Africa. An eye-witness describes the occasion when General Sir Edmund Allenby arrives in his staff car to inspect the ANZACs, mounts the horse provided for him and then, to the astonishment of all, turns round in his stirrups to hit the mare over the rump, a most un-Australian performance. You can see that the mare doesn’t like it, as head down she’s off pig-rooting into the dust, taking with her Allenby’s Chief of Staff, a Royal Marine who’s all at sea on board another horse which follows in the General’s wake. But like the true stockman that he is, Sir Harry rides them down, hoping that the General won’t fall off, ropes in the delinquent Marine, and with due dignity the official cavalcade enters the parade ground. And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat / It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride, as Banjo Paterson wrote, Harry’s chum at Sydney Grammar School.
‘Therefore’, as Isaiah wrote, ‘the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion: and everlasting joy shall be upon their head.’ It might have surprised the veteran Australian and New Zealand horsemen riding with Sir Harry Chauvel through Palestine a hundred years ago to be hailed as ‘the redeemed of the Lord’ but it would not have surprised Sir Harry. Descended from a French Huguenot family who had fled religious persecution in the France of Louis XIV, Sir Harry proved to be a worthy wielder of the sword during the liberation of Palestine from 400 years of Ottoman rule (indeed Jerusalem has been ruled by Islam for eleven of the last thirteen centuries). Strong in his Christian faith, as I said, Harry served for 25 years until his death in 1945 as a Churchwarden at Christ Church South Yarra, where you can see the sword he gifted to the Church, and, for almost as long, as a Lay Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral, where in the left-hand aisle, you can see the plaque which records how ‘his Christian regard for his men continued undiminished during the years of peace’. In 1938 he was to resign on principle from his leadership of the ANZAC Day March in Melbourne because the RSL had decided to remove the Christian element from the ANZAC Day Service (shades of political correctness even back then): ‘We are a Christian nation’, he declared, ‘and ought not to allow ourselves to be persuaded to eliminate all Christian semblance from a ceremony which we of the League have done our best to make a national occasion’. Throughout the Palestine campaign, Harry carried a Bible in his saddle-bags, protected by stout wooden boards. How he loved the biblical names: Beersheba, Mount Carmel, Samaria, Nazareth, Jezreel. Mount Gilboa, Gilgal, Gilead, the Sea of Galilee….As for his Chaplains, they had a field day, fossicking amidst the ancient ruins and enthusing in their sermons on the faith of every Biblical hero from Abraham down.
Allow me to discourse for a moment on Army Chaplains, some of the notable Padres of the Great War, the men – they were all men – whose mission it was to at least keep the soldiers in touch with the God of their Sunday School days. There was ‘Fighting Mac’ Mackenzie, the former boxing champion converted under the Salvation Army, who was very much a front-line hero on Gallipoli, his slouch hat riddled with bullet-holes because he would insist on conducting proper burial services within range, even within sight, of Turkish snipers. Then there was the equally famous Padre S.E. Maxted, killed whilst caring for the wounded in No Man’s Land during the carnage of the Fromelles attack, the costliest day in the history of the Australian Army. Working under fire, equally, were Padre Gilbert of Queenstown, Tasmania, and the Reverend J.J. Kennedy of Myrtleford, Victoria. At Hill 60 on the Peninsula, Chaplain Gillison and his mate, former clergyman Corporal Pittendrich, were both mortally wounded while trying to pull helpless men away from the scrub fires started by shell-fire, and then there was that other redoubtable Tasmanian clergyman, Lieutenant Bethune, from Hamilton, who had joined the 3rd Machine Gun Company and, in the absence of a Chaplain aboard the troopship ‘Transylvania’ en route for France, had preached a sermon about the soldiers’ need ‘to help right a great wrong’ with its memorable peroration, ‘With our dear ones behind, and God above, and our friends on each side, and only the enemy in front – what more do we wish for than that?’. Even more memorable was the written order he was to issue to his Machine Gun Section on the 13th March 1918 as the Allied line apprehensively awaited the expected German onslaught. Objecting to his CO that his mate’s Section was being allocated to a suicidal position, Bethune felt it only consistent that he should take on the task and, after explaining to his own Section his belief that the mission was hopeless, he called for volunteers (they responded to a man) and wrote out an order for each of them which became famous along the whole Western Front, as follows:
1. This position will be held and the Section will remain here until relieved.
2. The enemy cannot be allowed to interfere with this programme.
3. If the Section cannot remain here alive, it will remain here dead, but in any case it will remain here.
4. Should all our guns be blown out, the Section will use Mills grenades and other novelties.
5. Finally, the position, as stated, will be held.’
And in all humility, may I add a commendation of our Chaplains in Vietnam, especially the Roman Catholic Padres, the likes of Gerry Cudmore and Father Tinkler, who trudged along beside us through padi, rubber and jungle.
We Australians have nothing to apologise for in this liberation of the Middle East from autocratic Islamic rule, buttressed as it was by a brutal European militarism, however temporary that proved to be. What has not been temporary is the foundation and continued existence of the State we may once again call Israel, prophesied as it was in the Balfour Declaration just two days after the charge at Beersheba. Both Jews and Christians may see in that liberation a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. Even those apparently careless young men of the Australian Light Horse could see at the very least a fulfilment of their war aim, a reward for their sacrifice. For sacrifice it was, not least for their wonderful horses, not one of which came home. One hundred and two years ago, in fulfilment of prophecy, the Australian Light Horse helped to restore old Jerusalem. In doing that, and in concert with their AIF colleagues on the Western Front, they defeated a dangerous enemy. But in so doing they also placed a burden of debt upon all Australians today, for whether our ancestors were here 60,000 years ago, or whether some of us arrived, as it were yesterday, we all of us equally owe our freedom to that unsurpassed generation of 1914-1918 who suffered to build a better Australia. But as for that New Jerusalem, when the tabernacle of God will be with men and they shall be his people, that is a prophecy yet to be fulfilled. ‘We are a Christian nation’, declared Harry Chauvel. Could we be so again? Not through war and suffering – though who could rule that out forever? – but through an even more thorough obedience to God’s commandments so that we might have right to enter in through the gate into that City, to be greeted by Him who is the root and offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. Even so, come Lord Jesus.